One of the secrets of time management for the busy linguistic professional is to know what to read. I rely on two sources to guide me.
First and most important, I rely on my colleagues. If they recommend something, I generally rush off to take a look. Why so obedient? Because I really trust my colleagues’ judgments. Not only do they know a good paper when they read one, they also know have very good taste in topics, i.e. they know which are worth worrying about and which a waste of time. They know a good argument, analysis, criticism, proposal when they see one and, equally important, can spot work that is best left undisturbed by human eyes. In other words, they have judgment and good taste and so their recommendations are golden.
Second I rely on reviews. I love reviews. These come in two flavors: reviews by those whose taste and judgment you trust and those (let’s dub these “Inverse” reviews (IR)) by reviewers whose taste and judgment you don’t. Both are very very useful. You can guess why I value the former. They strongly correlate with “worthwhiledness,” (W). But the latter are also very useful for they are full of information (in the technical sense: viz. they inversely strongly correlate with W). After all if someone with execrable taste and barely competent analytic abilities loves a certain piece of work, then what better reason can one have to avoid it. And the converse holds as well: what better recommendation for a book than a negative review by one whose taste and competence you deplore. One could go further, praise from such a source would be reason enough to question one’s own positive evaluations!
Why do I mention this? For two reasons. First, I recently came across a very useful review of what I took to be a very good and enlightening book about the Minimalist Program. The book is Of Minds and Language. Here’s a review I did with Alex Drummond. Happily, my positive reaction to this discussion about Minimalism was seconded by this very negative review here. Faithful readers of this blog will recognize the deft comments of CB. With characteristic flair, CB pans the book, and applies her keen critical analysis to Chomsky’s every (imaginary) faux pas. So there you have it; a strong recommendation from me (and Alex) and, if possible, an even stronger inverse recommendation (and hence a definite must-read for the wise) from CB.
One last point: despite the utility of reviews like CB’s for people like me, they do have one failing. They don’t really engage the subject matter and so do not add much to the discussion. This is too bad. A good review is often as (and sometimes, more) interesting as the thing reviewed. Think of Chomsky’s famous review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior for example (here). IRs despite their great informational content are not really worth reading. As such, a question arises: why do journals like the Journal of Lingusitics (JL) and review editors like Peter Ackema solicit this kind of junk? True, Ackema and JL are doing a public service in that these reviews are excellent guides about what to read (remember inverse correlations of quality are reliable indicators of quality; all that’s needed is a handy minus sign to reveal the truth). But really, do Ackema and JL really think that this adds anything of substance? Impossible! So why do they solicit and print this stuff? I think I know.
Taken in the right frame of mind, these kinds of reviews can be quite entertaining. I think that JL has joined the Royal Society’s efforts (here) to lighten the tone of scholarly research by soliciting (unconscious?) parodies. It’s probably a British thing, you know Monty Python Does Scholarship or Linguistics Beyond the Fringe. Or maybe this stuff reads better with a British accent (I still think that half of what makes Monty Python, The Goon
Squad Show (thanks to David P for correction) and Beyond the Fringe funny is the accent). At any rate, it’s clear that the editors of
these journals have decided that there’s no future in real scholarship and have
decided to go into show business big time (not unlike Science). I have nothing against this, though I do think that they
should have warned their readers before including parody in their pages. But
now you are warned and you can read these papers with pleasure, all the while
also extracting lots of useful information, as one can from perfect negative
Oh yes: I am sure that CB will be busy correcting my errors in the comment sections. I will refrain from replying given my policy of refraining from engaging CB ever again, but this should not prevent you from enjoying yourselves.
I am genuinely humbled by Norbert's kindness. It never occurred to me that my short review would be compared to Monty Python or Goon Show skids. I imagine there were many Skinnerians who felt about Chomsky's 1959 review as Norbert does about mine - so I am deeply honoured by him drawing the parallel. Nevertheless, I need to correct a factual error: Peter Ackema was not review editor at the time I submitted my review. Apparently, the "shoot first, ask later" style, so characteristic for Norbert and David P., prevented them from checking the facts. For those with an interest in the facts I recommend the extended version of my review: http://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/001778ReplyDelete
Christina, I totally agree with you - Norbert made a big mistake. He should apologize to Monty Python.ReplyDelete
Oh, you take my review seriously then? Not what I would have expected, but thank you.Delete
You and I disagree, however, about to whom an apology is owed: I think accusing a "review editor like Peter Ackema [of] solicit[ing] this kind of junk" without bothering to confirm that Peter Ackema has done any such soliciting would warrant the need for an apology and I sincerely hope that Norbert is penning one as we speak
I've read both Behme's and Hornstein and Drummond's reviews and I'm a bit perplexed: Are they even talking about the same book? Obviously, a third opinion would be useful - anyone aware of other reviews?ReplyDelete
I do not think it is a question of a third opinion but of a mutually exclusive attitude towards the issues under debate. If one is as convinced as Norbert that Chomsky and Chomsky alone got it right [at least in principle], then one will agree with his review. If one is looking at the quality of Chomsky's arguments [in this volume as opposed to during his life time - no one doubts that he has made enormous contributions to linguistics] and at the huge amount of research that has been completed by non-Chomskyans in all the areas discussed one is likely to agree with my review.Delete
This is a ps to Oliver and anyone else interested:Delete
Regardless of what you think of my review, and assuming for a moment it is every bit as bad as Norbert suggests [though he did not really give a SINGLE example of what is bad], have a look again at this passage:
"As such, a question arises: why do journals like the Journal of Lingusitics (JL) and review editors like Peter Ackema solicit this kind of junk? True, Ackema and JL are doing a public service in that these reviews are excellent guides about what to read (remember inverse correlations of quality are reliable indicators of quality; all that’s needed is a handy minus sign to reveal the truth). But really, do Ackema and JL really think that this adds anything of substance? Impossible! So why do they solicit and print this stuff? I think I know.
Taken in the right frame of mind, these kinds of reviews can be quite entertaining. I think that JL has joined the Royal Society’s efforts (here) to lighten the tone of scholarly research by soliciting (unconscious?) parodies. It’s probably a British thing"
Based on ONE [allegedly] bad review Norbert feels entitled to accuse an editor [who, as we know by now was not even responsible] and a journal of promoting parody. I think this paragraph tells you more about the dogmatisim with which Norbert sees the world than about the quality of the journals and editors he refers to. So it may be worth your while to ask why Norbert wants to steer you away from such publications, why he feels such a strong need to ridicule everyone who disagrees with the object of his admiration [Noam Chomsky] ...
I just wanted to get a fuller picture, that's all. I see that Norbert Hornstein und you aren't exactly friends, but there also seems to be a more general problem: What really disturbs me is how hostile discussions or debates about the "biolinguistics"-approach can become. A representative example are the replies to Pullum's review of "The Science of Language": http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/419565.article
By the way: I'm not a fan of the Minimalist program, but I try to follow discussions on its philosophical underpinnings (especially from a perspective of the philosophy of science).
Thank you for the comment. I can understand that you wanted a fuller picture. Like you I am disturbed by the hostility one encounters in these debates. I also know that, I can make mistakes. So had Norbert listed specific statements he found to be incorrect, that would have been helpful. But no such reference was in his post. Still, compared to the attacks Chomsky launches against entire fields of mostly unnamed opponents, Norbert had at least the decency to name me and the editor of JoL. Which in turn allowed him to apologize to someone who had nothing to do with the review.
I read the reviews James listed and have no objection to the part of the pir review that is concerned with philosophical issues [clearly the area of expertise of the reviewer]. Regarding the work of Gallistel and Hauser: this stuff has been known for a long time. So even if the reviewer finds it interesting, it should have little room in a book that claims to inform about state of the art interdisciplinary research. Further, it is not clear how Gallistel's findings about bees relate to human language. One would expect either some novel insights or that the biolinguistic enterprise moves on to research on organisms that can tell us something about language - like say humans.
Regarding "Chris Cherniak’s discussion of efficiency principles in relation to neuroanatomy", I sat down with someone who actually works on this and he explained to me that on a very general level Cherniak's claims are trivially true. But if you apply them on a fine-grained level you'll find many instances in which efficiency principles are violated. And there is certainly no reason to expect that the kinds of examples Cherniak discusses will tell us anything interesting about human language - because they concern mostly organisms that have no language.
In my opinion one of the most serious flaws of 'Of Minds and Language' is: there are chapters about language [like Rizzi's, Laka's], there are chapters about psychology of language acquisition [like Friederici's], there are chapters about Biology [like Gallistel's, Hauser's]. But there is no novel way to integrate this research into a coherent biolinguistics. So it's far from 'state of the art of what we know about language mind and the brain' [especially if you look at work completed by non-Chomskyans].
Finally, Chomsky's attacks on others are not merely unpleasant but often factually incorrect. I discuss the Elman distortion. But also take the allegation that Leonard Bloomfield was "completely schizophrenic". Chomsky's main evidence for this claim is that Bloomfield's Menomini Morho-phonemics was published in Czechoslovakia not in the US: "I don't know what was going on in his head, but somehow that wasn't real science" [p. 342]. If one bothers to check the reference one notices that this work was part of a Festschrift for Trubetzkoy who back then, you might have guessed, worked in Prague - an important centre of European linguistics. I am no linguist, yet I easily could find out that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for why this work was published in Czechoslovakia. Am I supposed to believe that a linguist, paying as much attention to history as Chomsky, was unable to obtain this information? That none of the participants of the debate could possibly have known? That no one at CUP was able to check the legitimacy of a pretty serious allegation [that Bloomfield was schizophrenic in the 1930s/40s]? So why contains 'Of Minds and Language' such mean-spirited slander? It certainly has nothing to do with state of the art research on biolinguistics. But it may give you an idea why the discussions are often so disturbingly hostile: personal attacks [eviscerations is the term used by Norbert elsewhere and discussed briefly here: http://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/001840 ] are not merely tolerated but seemingly the gold-standard of debate ...
Thanks for the links.Delete